When I was a ten-year-old I started going to The Sun Theatre in Yarraville all the time. It was a big old art deco building that had fallen into disrepair in the previous decades, but around 1997 it was resurrected as a film society. It had an enormous 1000-seat auditorium, one screen, and barely anyone ever went. The film society only showed films on the weekends, mostly black-and-white stuff. Films such as Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955) and The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950). I saw Le Cercle Rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970) and soaked it up like a cinematic sponge.
Melville went all out with the set pieces. Whether it’s a sleek mahogany interior of a train compartment clunking through the countryside or a lonely ornate diner straight out of an Edward Hopper painting, Alain Delon is there, stalking the landscapes of the film, the collar of his cream-coloured trench coat popped, hands in pockets, crystal-blue eyes staring into the camera. I remember seeing The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978) with Ryan O’Neal as the cold, expressionless getaway driver for hire. Obsessive, strong, streetwise: these were virtues.
On the roof of the cinema was a neon sun that would buzz on at night. There were mauve seats with gold trim and the lobby was like stylish swirls of marble ice-cream. The candy bar had very buttery popcorn. Every time you went to see a film, you’d get a circle on your membership card crossed off. I often had 999 seats to myself and I sat smack bang in the centre. If anyone else came in the cinema to see a film, I took it personally, like someone had just walked into my house. From the age of ten onwards, I would go to see as many films at The Sun as possible. My parents would also take me to The Astor, The Kino and to action films at Greater Union. My semi-hippy parents had decided that TV cramped your imagination, so we didn’t have one at home, but going to the movies was encouraged.
My dad was a heist-film fan big time. He liked gangsters and crime in general, but heist films with lots of planning-the-crime sequences were his bread and butter. I remember seeing Rififi. The meticulousness, the control and the authenticity of the crooks’ world blasted into my head. The film dominated my celluloid-prone brain. After seeing the film I came home and my dad went on and on about how deciding to show the centrepiece of the film all in silence was a masterstroke. I agreed.
We didn’t agree on much at the time, but if it was anything heist related, we got along well. I got deep into those cinematic worlds and everything that came with them. I revelled in the thieves’ lives I saw on screen. The grimmer the better. They had strong codes of honour. They had gallows humour. They knew how to use violence. They were men with specialisations. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to know everything about thieves. I would go to the library and read about heists on the internet (it had just come out) and borrow true-crime books. I was excited to find out that Melbourne has a rich history of organised crews of professional armed robbers doing their thing.
We’ve got Ray Bennett, also known as Ray Chuck or The General, the mastermind of the infamous Great Bookie Robbery in 1976. He was an old school crook in a class of his own. He was one of the greatest armed robbers in Australia. Also, Russell ‘Mad Dog’ Cox, who was on the run for 11 years in 1977–88. He was a prolific armed robber, murderer, vegetarian and an exercise nut. He was recaptured at Doncaster Shopping Centre car park by detective Paul ‘The Fish’ Mullet.
We’ve also got dibs on the notorious ‘Road Gang Robbery’ in Richmond in 1994, when thieves dressed up as a crew of road workers in high vis, then stole $2.4 million from an Armaguard van and got away. I didn’t read much in my teen years but all the reading I did was crime related. I printed off all the newspaper articles I could find on that particular heist. I sourced academic studies on the psychological profiles of professional thieves. I read government reports on increased security measures to prevent bank robbery. Melbourne was the bank-robbery capital in the 1980s. Shit was hectic back then. I read all about it.
Nearly everyone I hung with shoplifted. It was a normal thing to do. But my fixation for thieves would blossom into something else entirely. I was an intense kid and I took my obsessions seriously. It wasn’t long before I got caught shoplifting. I was 12 years old. Sure I’d taken little things here and there, lollies and so on, but when I got caught stealing sports gear from Highpoint with my friend Dwayne McTaggart, it was a different story. Dwayne and I were inseparable back then. His chain-smoking mum, Rachel, with her red perm and gold earrings, who always had a pack of Holiday 50s on the go and wore a brown bomber jacket with a big gold eagle on the back. She spent all the money they didn’t have on getting Dwayne kitted out in the newest sports gear.
Meanwhile, my mum got everything from the op shop like a real povo. I always envied Dwayne. That day at Highpoint started well, as I’d managed to steal a pair of Nike shorts from Rebel Sport by just putting them on under my pants in the change room and waltzing out. The security tag was still attached, but for some reason it didn’t go off. But when I walked into Harris Scarfe with the shorts still on underneath my pants and the beepers went off, the security guard grabbed me. I denied everything. Dwayne didn’t steal anything, but they grabbed him too. The security guard took me to a back room to wait for the police. The police found the shorts and cautioned me. My parents blamed Dwayne, and said our friendship was kaput. I said it was my choice. They didn’t believe me. They even made me change schools. We drove out of the Highpoint car park, my parents in their yellow Datsun 200B and Dwayne’s mum in their commodore, and I barely saw Dwayne again.
Our family, my mum and dad and older brother, moved into my great-grandmother’s house in Yarraville in 1993, after she died. My folks got the house very cheap. Gentrification wouldn’t start for five to ten years. My dad’s family was born and bred in Yarraville. My dad’s mum grew up there and worked in the boot polish factory and the pubs in and around the western suburbs. When we had been living there for some time, one of my dad’s friends remarked that I was like a throwback to a different era.
The way I took to the streets so naturally was as if I belonged to another generation. I was a rough-and-tumble kid who loved being out and about. We moved out of Yarraville to Footscray when I was about 15. We were living in a single-front weatherboard house that backed onto the train line. I really loved trains. I loved public transport, trains especially, and as my parents intermittently didn’t have a car, we spent lots of time on trains. If there was a film set on a train or a film with decent sequences on a train, I made sure I saw it.
Train films were a close second to heist films. A train in slow motion, a character walking through train carriages, pretty much anything train related give me a buzz. I remember seeing The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, a really good train/heist film. Also, Sean Connery fighting in close quarters with a villain in a train compartment in From Russia with Love, big tick! Jon Voight as an escaped inmate in Runaway Train who takes over a train, fully embraces chaos and death while thundering through the snow. It’s a mediocre film, but as the centrepiece is a train, it’s elevated above its station and into train-film folklore.
I hated school, and by that age I was barely going. Instead of going to school, I’d catch trains all over Melbourne. I’d pack my bag like I was going to school, with books and lunch, but instead of going to school, I’d travel across Melbourne, sometimes even as far as Frankston, by myself or with a few mates. We loved trains and we loved stealing. We racked clothes all over town. We did graffiti too. We carried black markers in our jocks and we’d tag whole empty train carriages, floor to ceiling. The old Comeng trains with the yellow and green colours were still operational then. They had carpeted floors and our thick black ink soaked nicely into it. There was no-one around on the trains during the day, just us kids. Then I’d come home at school time, like it had just been another tough day at school. It was 2001.
I stole the things I was interested in: cans of spray paint, porn mags from newsagents, and certain brands of clothes. I started carrying two sets of pliers, one small and one bigger, for cutting beepers off clothes in case there were different-sized beepers on them. Myer, David Jones, Nike; I went in hard. The crew I hung out with at the time all dressed the same, little street athletes, and it was always about who could be the freshest, that is, who looked the best and who had the maddest style. This freshness had to be obtained through shoplifting clothes. Once you’d proved yourself through risky racking achievements, then you could brandish your gains and glow on the street with pride, inside and out.
We stole the two brands that proved your worth, Nautica and Ralph Lauren. They were the more difficult to rack. My prize possession was a bright-white Nautica fleece, with a navy-blue yacht sail, worth around $200. I cut the beepers off in a change room in David Jones, wore it underneath a big jacket so I looked like a little snowman, and ran out. I wore that fleece everywhere I could, until I accidentally burnt a tiny ciggy hole in it, which in my world rendered it unwearable. The iconic Jisoe documentary wouldn’t be coming out for another few years, but I racked from stores like he racked from stores. Outside cinema, Jisoe and his crew of graffiti writers and thieves were role models for how to go about it. We knew them personally.
One of the hardest stores to rack from was the official Ralph Lauren store on Collins Street. I scored a navy-blue long-sleeved cashmere top with a gold insignia from there. It was extremely soft like a little lamb. Back then, everyone was wearing Von Dutch hats and Ecko Unltd. T-shirts and boot-cut jeans. I hated that shit. I used to wear a black Nike jacket that folded up into a bum bag. Navy-blue Nike trackies for casual comfort. Columbia ski jackets in pastel colours with big hoods that I could hide my little head in. White Calvin Klein boxer shorts and baggy red-and-white Tommy Hilfiger polo shirts. I combined a slick sport look with the occasional baggy piece cos baggy shit was still mega popular. I even stole a pair of white Nike tailwind trainers that I put on in Rebel Sport and ran out. There were beepers in the shoes and they went off. I copped a chase from an overweight seccy but escaped down the graff alleyway that goes from Bourke to Little Collins.
By the time I was 16, I’d gotten into stealing porn magazines. That particular interest had been piqued by accident with the first hardcore-porn magazine I found. It was behind my house in Footscray. I was walking along the top of the canyon where the graffiti-covered back fences of the houses dropped almost vertically down to the trains running below. There was about a metre of rocky shrubbery ground to clamber on. I spotted the mag in the shrub. Snails had eaten it but the pictures were still very clear. The babes in it were sleek and hardcore and it blew my little mind. I jacked off on the spot right there on the edge of the canyon, in a bit of shrub, as the trains clunked by below. I stashed it and went back there often. I took a plastic bag to keep the magazine weather and snail proof. One day it was gone, but that kind of porn stuck in my mind.
During my busy days out racking clothes and paint, I wanted to increase the level of risk. I wanted to get more bang for my buck. And that came accidentally (how accidental is opportunism?). I wanted to get more porn. The mags I would get from newsagents were lame. I wanted European stuff. So I decided to try to get into the back of a porn shop on Elizabeth Street. I got in through an unlocked door and into a backroom where all the porn was kept. I grabbed heaps of DVDs and mags. As I was leaving I opened some drawers and there was a yellow envelope that had cash in it. I grabbed that too and disappeared into the city.
Unintentionally, I’d combined stealing porn with burglaries and was on an upward trajectory towards the top of the petty crime pile. At the same time as watching porn I satisfied my need for voyeurism of a different kind, watching crime films. Nicolas Winding Refn’s output these days is an empty aesthetic exercise, but back in the day, his Pusher Trilogy was mind-blowingly good. Lots of aggressive movement. Scumbag behaviour. Lost-cause mentality. Tough and relentless. It’s a shame he fell in love with himself.
At that time my parents were in a state of shock and disbelief at how things were going for me. My mum was doing occasional work as a freelance journalist, but as the pay came sporadically, and my dad was employed for short stints doing whatever he could, there wasn’t much money around, which was stressful for my mum and dad. My brother was reasonably well behaved. My parents didn’t understand why I was behaving the way I was. They’d already been to three court appearances for shoplifting and criminal damage. Twice at Children’s Court in the city and one other time at Sunshine Children’s Court. These times I was cautioned, fined for the criminal damage, and warned about the path I was heading down. I didn’t tell my mum that I didn’t give a shit and that as soon as I left the court, the experience meant nothing to me.
By 2003 I’d moved on to the Magistrates’ Court. From little court to big court, but I was always in court for the pettiest shit. I was mad cos no-one knew that I hadn’t been caught for the more serious thieving I was doing. The reason I was here this time was for the stupidest thing yet. I’d been caught doing a tag on a wall in the city when I was drunk. Such an annoying pissant thing, but when the cops grabbed me (they were literally driving past when I was doing it) my tag was wet, but so was another tag near mine and I decided to say I was the person who had written ‘Dolphins are humans too’. So instead of getting in more shit for my tag, I said I was an environmentalist and I really did think that dolphins were humans too. The judge looked hard at me for some time, before he said, ‘You think crime is a game, son?’
I stood there in court with my father next to me. My dad was an upstanding citizen. But I reckon he liked being in court and around criminals. He seemed a little thrilled. He was decked out like he was going to some kind of event, maybe a gangster christening. He was wearing black slacks, a white shirt, a baby-blue tie and a crème trench coat. If this court scene was in black and white, he could be a character right out of Rififi. All he needed was a white fedora. I wasn’t really listening to the judge. I was more interested in the other criminals who sat in the gallery behind me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that none of this was real. The judge, the criminals: it was as if they were all characters in a movie. My dad dressed up the way he was somehow amplified this. The judge continued.
‘You’re going to get one last chance to make new rules, otherwise where you’re heading, you better learn how to fight.’
The last sentence caught my attention. I got into fights occasionally, but I didn’t pursue fights for fun. I didn’t like punching on. I wondered how long it would take me to learn how to fight? He continued. ‘If I see you in my court again, you’ll be convicted, and maybe even worse.’
He peered over his spectacles. I got my act together right there on the spot for the benefit of all concerned. ‘Thank you your honour, you won’t be seeing me again.’
I bowed. My dad said, thanks your honour. I was fined. If anything, I was embarrassed as I thought that all the criminals would think that I was just another petty idiot. In some ways I was. But I had various thieving situations on the go at the same time. I’d get caught for some stuff, like this dolphins bullshit, and not for others. And it was the stuff I wasn’t getting pinched for, the kinda stealing that the criminals in the gallery would be proud of, that I’d started doing in earnest.
I first heard of ‘searchin’ as a particular type of theft when I met a couple of older thieves from Sydney through a bunch of dodgy older guys I knew. They had interstate warrants out for them and were lying low in Melbourne. I was out and about in the city. I told them what I did, how I went into back rooms of shops and stole money. And when I told them, they got excited, as if they’d met one of their brethren. They had a name for me. They called me a little Sydney lad. A searcha. That’s what criminal kids in Sydney did, searchin. Melbourne didn’t have a word for it. In Melbourne it was just rackin and shoplifting, but in Sydney there was a distinctive criminal subculture and they called themselves searchaz.
Searchin was going after cash kept in back rooms of shops, opening tills when workers were distracted, daytime burglaries in office buildings to steal wallets or purses, pickpocketing. It was what I did. It relied on stealth, agility and speed. Any films that were heavily focused on continuous movement complemented my pursuits. I liked being on the move, always prepared for action. My perspective had sharpened. I now honed in on aspects of my environment that I hadn’t before. When I went into a shop I’d look for the door that would take me to a back room. I would see where the exits were and whether the door to the back room had cameras on it or was visible from the counter. Searchin relied on moments of workers’ lapsed concentration, distraction, quick movements, in and out. I narrowed my vision and it paid off.
I traversed Melbourne all day on the hunt for opportunities. I’d go to places I’d never heard of, rich suburbs out east such as Auburn, on the Belgrave, Lilydale and Alamein train lines. In these suburbs there were lots of boutique shops for rich old people where they buy candles and cable sweaters. I also went to the other end of Melbourne, to Williamstown, also rich. I covered lots of ground. I got the perfect opportunity when I was walking past a florist at closing time off the main drag in Willy.
The worker, who was alone in the shop, was taking the bins out. When he took the first wheelie bin out and around the corner, it took about 30 seconds. I counted. While he was gone, I ran in and hid behind some big plants at the back of the shop. I waited for him to come back for the second bin. He came back in, grabbed the bin and left. I had 30 seconds. I ran out from behind some plants, went to the till, hit the no sale button, scooped out all the notes, fifties first, shoved them down the pants and got out of the store. I got the days takings, about $900. That was a good day. Other days I’d get nothing. It was all luck of the drawer.
By now I was living out my fantasy world. I was committing an avalanche of petty theft. I was searchin and doing burglaries. I was still going to the movies all the time. When I saw Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000), I was impressed. The stylised underwater heist where Ray Winstone wears the scuba gear with his cockney crew and gets the goods from the safety deposit boxes is a memorable scene. When Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004) came out, it was the modern equivalent of the characters in the film noir I used to see in The Sun Theatre. And through Collateral I found Heat (Mann, 1995). I’d come late to the game with it. I know everyone likes Heat, but I really, really liked Heat. It appealed to me on a cosmic level. I got the DVD box set.
Then I went through Michael Mann’s back catalogue, and that’s when I saw Thief. The opening scene lit up my nervous system. It’s where James Caan breaks into a safe with an electro-magnetic drill, rugged and technically proficient, and the scene cuts between his partner in the car with a police scanner in the alley and back to his up-close drilling technique. He’s after diamonds and that’s what he gets before driving off through the rain-drenched, neon-lit Chicago streets.
That scene merged with an idea that had been lurking in my head for some time. I wanted to open a safe. In my short criminal career I had yet to do what the old schoolers did, and that was to open a safe myself. Sure, I could thrive as an opportunist, but what about a planned heist where I opened the safe. Then I could be proud. I set my mind to the task, but as a budding criminal autodidact I lacked criminal teaching. All I knew was I wouldn’t use a drill. I’d seen the technique of opening a safe using a stethoscope in a film. That’s what I would try. I had no-one to tell me whether it worked or not.
My parents had a friend who lived in South Gippsland and we used to go and stay at their house sometimes. In the town, there was a bowling club. One time I was walking around the town, and I went into the club during the day to see if there was anything I could steal. There was nothing, no wallets and the cash register was open and empty. But what caught my eye was a massive green safe in full view behind the counter. There were ads for Peter Jackson ciggies in shitty frames over the bar. A newspaper clipping of the 2004 premiers, Port Adelaide Football Club, plastered on the front of the safe. There was a groundsman around.
I found a set of keys on a board that opened the back door. I had to try three sets, but I had my way in. I figured this could be my big moment, it could be where I acquire a stethoscope and open the safe like I’d just seen in some film (I can’t remember which). But I had to get a stethoscope. I made an appointment with a doctor. It was a big clinic. I got there early. I walked around looking for the toilets and there were many GP rooms. I saw an empty room and I ran in, saw the stethoscope on the desk and grabbed it. I coiled it up and put in down my pants and ran out; it literally took 15 seconds. I had my equipment, and now to put my plan into action.
I decided that Sunday night would be a good night. I set my alarm for 3 am. I had a torch and some gardening gloves I took from the shed. I rode my bike down there. I put the annoyingly bulky gloves on and used the keys to get in. All was quiet inside. So here was my big moment, the moment where the thief uses tools and knowledge of equipment to get into a safe. My hands were shaking as I put the stethoscope up to the safe. The cold, still night made even the slightest noise sound like a bomb going off in my head. A car drove past. I stopped. I held my breath as though my breathing would give me away. I waited for the sound of the car to disappear. I went back to work. I turned the tumbler and listened, nothing. I turned and turned, but still nothing. No clicks. Where was the sound? Was I doing it wrong? I stayed there for ages, sitting on the floor with the stethoscope, trying to find the pulse of the safe. I kept trying to get the sound. But it didn’t come. I gave up. It was the biggest anti-climax of all. I rode home and went to bed a failure.
That event had a strange ripple effect on me. It was 2005. I was 19. I thought about the judge telling me that I had better learn how to fight, but I knew I could learn anything if I needed to. But I remember not having the same drive or desire to steal that I used to. I battled with this. I had always wanted to be a thief, ever since I was a kid. I’d come up through the petty ranks and at some point I would go to jail. I would learn new skills, and that would be it. But the life I had been living was getting boring. I wanted something new.
I had a few grand stashed away that I’d saved up from rackin and searchin and I decided to go overseas. I bought a return ticket to London. I’d play it by ear. When I arrived I began working long hours in bars and on my days off I’d sleep in and go to the movies. Due to work obligations, I literally didn’t have the time to steal. In light of this new non-stealing situation, I made a deal with myself. If the opportunity arose, I’d take it, but if it didn’t, so be it.
I was wandering around Leicester Square on one of my days off when I found the Prince Charles Cinema. It showed a lot of old films and had really good popcorn. It was usually empty, not just the cinema itself but the rest of the building was relatively empty too. La Haine was playing that day. I cruised on in and there were only two people sitting together at the front. I sat left of centre, right in the middle of the cinema. Even though I’d seen it three or four times it stands up strong. I love it. As the credits rolled and the couple left, I sat there in the yellow light and did my quick analysis of what the film meant to me now. It still meant plenty. On the way outside I noticed that the candy bar counter was empty. The register unmanned. I hadn’t stolen any cash for almost six months, which was the longest gap in years. No one appeared. I ran behind the counter, swooped the till, got the cash, ran back round, and kept walking like I’d never broken stride. Out into the street no worries, but at the same time I was weirdly overwhelmed by an emptiness that muddled the high. I walked across Leicester Square feeling odd. If the old buzz wasn’t there and I didn’t need the money, then why was I still doing it?
I came up with a plan. In my head I thought that if I stopped seeing crime films, heist films especially, maybe I’d lose the temptation. If I could go six months without a dip, then why not keep going. I was the outer layer of candy on a toffee apple that knew fuck all about the apple. If I stuck to my plan, I would become a better person. And in some ways, it worked, purely as an accidental change in allocation of time. It meant I had time to do other things. I met less hectic people and became involved in social situations that would be described as ‘nice’. I toned things down. Yet I couldn’t really shake the urge as I hadn’t found a replacement for that unique adrenaline that seemed to only come from theft. I loved stealing way too much. It felt like a mish-mash of all three main characters in Wes Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket (in my opinion his best film). My favourite character in Bottle Rocket is the Owen Wilson character, Dignan. There I am at the end of the film sitting in jail in a jumpsuit hanging out with my two buddies who’ve come to visit. We’re eating burgers and drinking Coke and the landscape is very still. While we were chatting, a reality is solidifying. The reality that I’ve wasted a lot of time doing not much at all, specialising in the neither here nor there. But as I thought more, maybe that was the best part, the hardest part, being comfortable in the neither here, nor there. My high-level nothingness had allowed me to see both sides of the coin.
I smiled as I turned off Leicester Square and starting walking through Soho. I put a hand in my jeans pocket and found a 10p coin. I got a little joyous at my double discovery, inside and out, and was about to stop and flip it on the street like a little chimney sweep but I kept walking and gave it to a shit busker instead. •
Dominic Gordon is based in Melbourne. He’s had work produced and broadcast on Radio National’s Soundproof program and appeared in a few literary magazines. He’s a Fellow at State Library Victoria.